There is a lot of guessing games in the peace corps. Some may argue that is what turns you into a flexible individual and in the end, a better volunteer. I have to admit that since arriving in this country, I have learned to go more with the flow. In the life of a PCV you don’t really have a choice. I had never traveled to Europe before coming to Albania. After college, I began to crave change, I wanted to add something new and exciting to my life. I wanted to test myself and learn how to be on my own half a world away. Even though this was something I knew I wanted, it didn’t fail to scare me.
When you sign up for the PC you can put down a preference of country. They take it into consideration but your placement is completely in their hands. Once you get your nomination for a specific region of the world, more of an application process follows. Fifty percent of applicants official invitations are different from the original nomination they were given. If you accept the invitation then you are faced with the task of packing for two years living in a country that you have most likely never stepped foot in. In two suitcases. I like to be prepared for any and all situations I might run into. The application process taught me that I had to let go of being in the drivers seat. And get rid of a lot of clothes.
After four weeks of being in the dark about where we were being placed for site, there was the infamous site announcement day. There was drama, announcement and of course, drinks to celebrate. Although, many of us weren’t any more enlightened about our site other than knowing where it landed on the map. Six more weeks of PST followed and then we were given our chance at freedom and moved to our sites. Learning how to pay bills, figure out where to buy food and settling into our new homes were all learning experiences. Albania is not a country to rush through anything, it doesn’t matter how important you think it is. The pace of life here has taught me to live in the moment and stop to smell the roses.
Volunteers are placed in the biggest cities of Albania and the smallest sites in rural areas on the mountains. The living conditions and hardships change from site to site and literally, from volunteer to volunteer. Some say the north is harder because there are less amenities up there. More power outages and there is a high probability that you will have a turkish toilet. Some say the best sites are down south on the beach. Four months out of the year some of these beach towns triple in size due to tourists. The rest of the year they become ghost towns that literally almost shut down. Volunteers can become defensive about the site they were placed in. I think it has to do with the fact that if you aren’t roughing it as much as the next person, then you aren’t as good of a volunteer. I have learned again and again that each site has it’s pros and it’s cons. Learning to focus on the good of the situation doesn’t just make us a more successful, it makes us happier volunteers.
Albanians are honest people. Honest may actually be an understatement. They will tell you how they think you look, what they think about your outfit, if they like who you are hanging out with, and countless other opinions. The culture here is so different, sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure i am awake. I recently went and visited some friends up north who have amazing shqip skills. We were talking with their host family and the daughter turned to me and said ” they have much better shqip than you do!” I only nodded and agreed with her because it was a very true statement. They will tell you if they think your friends are prettier than you. If they think you look fat today. If you need to go home and change clothes. If they don’t think you should hang out with certain people. Which boy they think you should marry. Opinions here are handed out left and right without any sugar coating. I have learned that you can’t take many of them personally. Nod, smile and let it float in one ear and out the other.
In the end the Peace Corps accomplishes a lot more than just their three goals. I am continuing to grow as a person while living here. I am developing respect for a culture that is so radically different from my own. I am handing daily challenges completely on my own and figuring out a solution. In a different language. I like to think that Albania is teaching me to not only yearn for change, but to fully embrace it.